Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd

I saw Billy Budd (1951) at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in the fall of 2004, and recently rented the Netflix DVD of a 1988 BBC performance with the English National Opera conducted by David Atherton, distributed by Image. Billy Budd is played by Thomas Allen, Captain Vere by Philip Langridge, and Claggart by Richard Van Allan.
The story derives from a novella by Herman Melville; the libretto was written by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier.

The story is well known. To put if briefly, Billy Budd, a handsome and good-hearted chap who stutters, is impressed on by the British Navy (onto the Bellipotent) from a merchant ship during the war with France in 1797 (slightly before the time of “Master and Commander”). The crew likes him, but Master-of-Arms Claggart grows suspicious and “accuses” him of plotting mutiny. In an ensuing confrontation in Captain Vere’s shipboard office, Budd “accidentally” kills Claggart and must be put to death, to the great lament of the crew. The novella plot is longer and has more wrinkles.

But it is the meaning of the story that is controversial. On one level, it is even compared to the Passion. Billy is seen as a Christ figure, Claggart as Satan or as Judas, and Vere as Pilate.

But in the modern world, the story has some indeed controversial interpretations. Impressment was a controversial practice that helped lead to the War of 1812. In European history, mutiny was also a major issue for navies (the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”). But in more modern terms it reminds us of the issue of military conscription. The closed all male environment of the British Navy ship presents unit cohesion problems well known to the sociology of the modern military. It’s easy to imagine Billy’s “stuttering” as a symbol for homosexuality, and Claggart’s accusations as the equivalent of a witch-hunt (as under today’s “don’t ask don’t tell”). At one point, Budd stutters when ordered “Defend yourself!” and then he strikes Claggart. (In the language of my own boyhood, he “hits back.”) Britten, who was homosexual and who died in 1976, still might have privately imagined the inevitable social changes that in a couple of generations would make this a real issue. On a more general level, Budd represents a non-conformist who represents an existential threat to the established order and therefore is a convenient mark for being framed. As much as we love to represent this concept in literature and art, it is hard to deal with in real life.

The music is linear, modal and sinewy, the brass sometimes imitating the effects of a shipboard band. The choral harmonic effects in the “All Hands Down” near the end are startling (and that music was used in the French film “Beau Travail” (dir. Clair Dennis), where the setting is Djibouti with the French Foreign Legion. The very ending, where Billy is lowered to the sea, reminds one of late Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) or even the hushed close of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony.

I say, perform this again in Washington, and let SLDN make it an occasion for a gigantic fundraiser if Marty Meehan’s bill to lift DADT makes real progress.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thomas Pandolfi gives piano recital of Liszt, Scriabin, Chopin. Gershwin in Washington DC

Pianist (Julliard educated) Thomas Pandolfi this afternoon (Sunday Feb. 24, 2008) gave the Inaugural Recital for the new Steinway Concert Grand Piano in the Sanctuary at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC at 16th and O Sts. NW, about one mile north of the White House.

The program started with the largest work, the “Apres Une Lecture du Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata),” a 17-minute rhapsody by Franz Liszt. It is supposed to be roughly in Sonata form, and starts with a tonally ambiguous introduction in tritons. It eventually settles into two major themes, the second quite heroic, and finally ends triumphantly in D Major. The famous B minor Sonata is longer, in one movement, and ends quietly, but has a somewhat similar triumphant second subject. (I learned the second Liszt Legend, "St. Francis Walking on the Water", in high school, with its bombastic close; the first legend, talking to the birds, is much harder, as is "Dance of the Gnomes," a piece which ought to please filmmaker Mark Horowitz for his Sentra ads).

The pianist continued with the Nocturne, Op. 9, #2. in D-flat for Left Hand alone, by Alexander Scriabin. The pieces sounded as it could have fit into Rachmaninoff’s Op. 32 preludes (in that set, the D-flat piece closes the set triumphantly). Scriabin achieves amazing sonority with left hand alone, but wisely writes the piece in a key signature with all the black keys to make the technique more manageable.

He continued with four Etudes by Chopin: Op. 10 #12, C minor (“Revolutionary”), Op. 25 #1 in A-flat (“Aeolian Harp”), Op, 10 #8 in F (sounding almost unplayable on white keys), and #10 in E, the famous “Tristesse”. He followed with the Fantasy-Impromptu ib c# Minor, Op. 66 (rather like an etude), and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53.

After a brief intermission, he played an improvisation of George Gershwin melodies, and concluded with a piano solo version of Rhapsody in Blue.

For an encore, he played an arrangement of an “aria” from Andre Lloyd Webber’s “Phanton of the Opera,” and it sounded a bit like a Liszt Consolation. The Webber opera became a Warner Brothers film directed by Joel Schumacher at Christmas, 2004.

The pianist offers several CDs, one of which ("Polish Masters") includes the Paderewski Piano Concerto, and Chopin's variations on the march theme from Bellini's "The Puritans" which I had discussed on this blog Sept. 4, 2007. I bought the Polish CD, and found the playing similar to that of the concert: a rich, ringing piano tone in the upper registers, typical of the Steinway (I took piano lessons on a Baldwin, that has a "louder" lower register); an interest in left-hand melodies, a tendency to dawdle a bit in tempos once in a while. The piano concerto gets a spirited reading with the Moravian Philharmonic conducted by Peter Schmelzer. The style seems midway between Chopin and Rachmaninoff, with the finale having a "big tune", an idea that Tchailowsky and Rachmaninoff (mainly the Russian composers) as well as Grieg would develop, but not quite as well prepared. Paderewski composed this at 28. (My favorite "youth" concerto is Eugen d'Albert's, the first of which is Liszt-sonata-like and provides a fugue as a stunning cadenza toward the end, a stunning teen-age accomplishment.) The CD "brand" seems to be Pandolfi's own, and, as with movies, this may be a coming trend, for artists to develop, manufacture and even trademark their own brands without major media corporations behind them.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Concerts, plays and monologues on social controversies

I got a technical treatise on the ex-gay movement yesterday, but before reviewing it (now done, here) I though I would recall a couple of performances in the past at least tangential to this.

In March 1990, I went (on invitation) to a Sunday night service at the National Presbyterian Center in NW Washington DC (near the NBC4 studio) that was said to be sponsored by Love in Action. This specific church, a landmark in the area, is supposedly conservative. I rode in a carpool with some co-workers at a consulting firm in downtown Washington DC. One of them had a housemate, who came on this event, and who belonged to this group, and said that it had something to do with “giving up the gay lifestyle.” I had heard Love in Action mentioned publicly as a Christian ministry to people with AIDS, but the public media tended to play down what are apparently the intentions of the group. In mainstream circles of volunteering with PWA’s (the Whitman Walker Clinic) one heard relatively little mention of it.

The church service was supposed to consist of all music, and it included a Bach Cantata, which I believe was #79 based on “Now Thank We All Our God.” Besides the choir and organ, there was a baroque chamber orchestra. I recall that, before the final stanza, the performance was interrupted by a prayer. The prayer was lengthy and intrusive and lasted about fifteen minutes. Yet, at no time in the prayer or any other point in the service was the supposedly anti-gay intention of the group ever mentioned.

Afterwards, on the ride back to Arlington, everybody in the car agreed with me that the interruption of a concert performance of an important masterwork of classical music had been rude and inappropriate, and disruptive, ruining the performance for religious reasons. No one mentioned the supposed ulterior motive of the group.

Fast forward fourteen years to another event. In January 2004, the gay-friendly Church of the Pilgrims on P Street in Washington DC (DC Front Runners gathers there for after morning-jog picnic lunches) sponsored a performance of Peterson Toscano ’s satirical monologue play “Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement”. It was pretty funny, and it covered some material about the ex-gay movement I had heard before. The speaker recounts paying stiff rent for living in a communal “halfway house” where only Christian books are allowed and where no one is left alone.

Monologue plays can be effective. In April 2000, in conjunction with that spring’s
March on Washington”, the Studio Theater in Washington DC presented Marc Wolf’s “Another American: Asking and Telling,” which traces the agonizing history of “don’t ask don’t tell”; the event was an SLDN benefit. There are other examples, such as Chris Wells ‘s “Liberty” with the theme “Where am I in America” which I saw at the Eye of the Storm Theater in Minneapolis in 1998, or even “Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein” by Marty Miller, which will have a performance in Tacoma WA soon, according to this site: I saw this in the 80s in Dallas, I believe in a theater on Turtle Creek.